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Boogie On: Filling the DeMarcus Cousins Void

Ben Dowsett examines whether Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere can step into some big shoes in Sacramento.

Ben Dowsett



Whatever your thoughts on it, an era has ended in Sacramento. DeMarcus Cousins’ next technical foul suspension will be served under a new flag, his basketball played while wearing a new jersey.

Typically accompanying the end of such a colorful era is that pesky reality: The beginning of a new era.

In Sacramento’s case, it’s one they’re almost historically badly prepared for among franchises who traded an All-Star level player in the recent past. These deals typically net multiple young pieces and picks: The Jazz got a veteran point guard replacement (Devin Harris), the third overall pick from the most recent draft (Derrick Favors), cash considerations and two first-round picks from the Nets for Deron Williams barely six years ago. Williams almost surely wasn’t as valuable a player in a vacuum as Cousins is today.

The Kings didn’t even approach half that haul, and while remaining contract length and Boogie’s notable flaws definitely played a role, it’s mostly their own fault. They could have had more in return at dozens of points prior to the actual trade, but the devastating combo of a meddlesome owner and an incompetent figurehead making major basketball decisions never allowed it to happen.

Time moves forward regardless. And while the short-term coffers for replacing even chunks of Cousins’ production are woefully short, there are a couple intriguing frontcourt names who at least make the future worth talking about.

The DeAndre Jordan comparisons are virtually unavoidable for Willie Cauley-Stein. And while this typically lazy shorthand misses some details just like all of them do, its origins are easy enough to see. Both spent at least a season under a well-known post bruiser (Zach Randolph spent most of Jordan’s rookie year in Los Angeles), but neither really boasted many of those kinds of skills to develop. Both entered the league as little but raw athletic freaks with NBA size and hops.

The current iterations look nothing alike as defenders, but the vague outlines are there. They’re most obvious when each guy blocks a shot; Cauley-Stein’s combination of pure hops plus great timing with his opponents’ jumps is when he looks most eerily similar to DeAndre:

Cauley-Stein has posted respectable SportVU figures as a rim protector to this point in the league. The timing similarities mostly end there, at least when comparing the present versions of both players.

Cauley-Stein is clearly a guy with years of experience letting his athleticism make up for deficiencies elsewhere in his game, a tactic all but a handful of NBA guys have to rid themselves of quickly. Watch him make a visibly unforgivable error by not even getting so much as a hand on his man for a box-out, but then erase it moments later with sheer freakiness.

That stuff may fly for now, but it won’t if Cauley-Stein is to ever playing meaningful minutes for a competitive team. Those couple beats of complete inactivity, even as he’s looking right at the guy he’s supposed to box out, are a microcosm of some of his biggest warts – it’s almost as if he feels like he needs to save up all his energy for those giant leaps. That’s not how things work in the NBA.

The effect is most visible in his rebounding numbers, which are horrific at both a team and individual level. He’s in the bottom 15 for both defensive rebounding percentage and overall rebounding percentage among 80 guys 6-foot-10 or taller, and borderline bottom-five among a smaller group of guys at least 7-foot or taller. The Kings have been about an average rebounding team on the year; they drop to among the league’s worst when Cauley-Stein is on the floor.

It’s tough to say how much of this is fixable given all the turmoil in town since he arrived, and maybe even tougher to say whether the mental leap Jordan made to go from a raw athlete to a defensive star is possible for Cauley-Stein. Most guys don’t have the passion for it.

Some of the indicators are decent. WCS swipes steals more often than Jordan at this age, and doesn’t foul as often. Jordan was two years younger when he entered the league, so these comparison numbers include two extra seasons for him.

This is usually an advantage to the younger guy no matter what, and probably is here too. Cauley-Stein’s extremely abnormal development cycle to this point could form an argument the other way, though. Jordan made his leap later than most, and it’s not out of the question for Cauley-Stein either if his true, healthy development only really began about two weeks ago (it might have).

If he can come anywhere close on the defensive end, the other side of the ball definitely contains some positive signs. Cauley-Stein is no bucket-getter, but he’s also nowhere near the liability Jordan was offensively at age 23, even despite DeAndre’s extra NBA years by that point.

Jordan’s turnover rate at that age was nearly double Cauley-Stein’s at this point in his career, and that came with a smaller team possession load than Willie has handled. Cauley-Stein is already in the mid-60s as a free-throw shooter, a level Jordan still hasn’t even approached in nine years. Likewise, he has dribble skills Jordan would kill for:

That’s a limited skill picture, of course. Cauley-Stein is already showing impressive chops as a roll man in pick-and-roll sets, with the hops and dexterity to dunk just about anything close to him, but he has a long way to go to match Jordan – maybe the most powerful player in the game in this role.

That’s really the rub as far as the Jordan comparisons go. There’s a real chance Cauley-Stein already has more complementary skills than the Clippers’ star right now, but Jordan isn’t great because of any of those things; he’s great because of how insanely good he is at the few things he does well, which just happen to be some of the most important skills a big man can have in the modern NBA. Cauley-Stein ever reaching those heights is unlikely, but perhaps not impossible, and whether he ever comes close will define his long-term success.

Toiling in even greater obscurity than Cauley-Stein is Skal Labissiere, the 28th overall pick in the 2016 draft.

Once considered an elite blue chip prospect heading into Kentucky, Labissiere had one of the stranger freshman years for a high-ceiling Calipari product. He played just 16 minutes a night and was often overshadowed by bigger names, to the point where it surprised plenty of folks in the league when he even declared for the draft. The general consensus was that Labissiere could use another year of class, even in an NBA world where access to pro training and coaching typically far outweighs any stay-in-school benefits.

That consensus might still be accurate, but now Labissiere’s grading scale gets a whole lot steeper. He’s barely across the 100-minute barrier, and all the numbers in his orbit might as well be question marks.

Labissiere has just the faintest touch of “unicorn” DNA in him – a 6-foot-11 leaper with a big wingspan and some guard skills.

If Cauley-Stein is still struggling to find his feel for the game, Labissiere is still learning the very definition of the term. He has no idea where to be on the floor at a given moment, especially when it comes to defensive rotations and anything second-level on either end. Like a lot of guys in his position, he wants to shoot every time he gets the ball.

He’s also rail thin, listed at just 225 pounds for that 6-foot-11 frame. Labissiere has a long way to go improving his body, though his frame makes it feel easily possible. Until he gets there, he could benefit from a bit more subtlety when he tries to move guys who aren’t even as big as him anyway.

It’s virtually all potential for Labissiere at this point, but it’s tantalizing potential.

His shooting mechanics are fantastic for a guy his size, almost Anthony Davis-esque in that single area. He moves in a unique way that few bigs do, and should be a valuable commodity as a floor-runner once he gets his conditioning up to speed. He gets off the ground incredibly quickly, and it’s only stuff between the ears keeping him from real potential as a rim protector – he has the timing to do it, but is too easily baited into fouls and can’t read decoy actions for what they are just yet.

Labissiere is another of those guys who started playing basketball much later than any of his peers. This can be a false flag, but it certainly means more than nothing. The samples are way too small to judge from, but some of his shooting metrics and on-court team figures are already pointing in the right direction. He only needs a couple of these unicorn skills to hit home at the NBA level to be a successful player, which is what makes his type so salivating.

Between Cauley-Stein and Labissiere, there might be just enough to give Kings fans some modicum of hope for the future of their frontcourt.

Neither will ever duplicate Cousins’ production or even come close, but both could offer elements that fit the modern game more snugly – Cauley-Stein’s shot-blocking and rim-running, Labissiere’s guard skills, length and shooting. The Kings can push the pace more often with two strong bigs running the floor, especially if Labissiere ever adds enough strength to play center on his own and split the pair up more often.

(As an aside, for all his other flaws, it sure would have been fun to see these two get some real time under speedster coach George Karl. The Kings were too busy turning down much bigger Cousins offers and creating in-house drama for that to ever happen, though.)

They could form a pretty tantalizing duo together, too. Labissiere should have the lateral chops to stick with most small-ball power forwards these days, and if the strength ever comes around, he’d be a problem for those guys on the other side. He can already shoot over all of them, and if the shooting touch from deep becomes more than a hypothetical at some point, spacing won’t be an issue around Cauley-Stein.

The duo has played 71 minutes together this year. That’s not long enough to make any final calls, especially with the garbage time they saw before Cousins’ departure, but it’s long enough to note that their plus-16 net per-100-possession differential is pretty damn impressive. Labissiere has the best on court/off court splits on the team since Cousins left, another sign that’s still positive even if it’s due for a regression when the samples stabilize.

It’s early, and the Kings have earned less trust than any other NBA front office. There are still so many ways they could screw this up. Even if they don’t, there’s no guarantee Cauley-Stein or Labissiere provides any real long term excitement.

They’re easily the best of a very limited frontcourt lot, though, and all the drama might have caused a few folks in the league to look past these types in Sacramento. The next couple years will be a fascinating test of life after DeMarcus Cousins.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.


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NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet

The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Moke Hamilton



The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.

With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.

We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.

All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.

What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.

So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?

It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.

* * * * * *

Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.

In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.

The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.

Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.

Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.

It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.

The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.

In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.

You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.

* * * * * *

There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.

And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.

If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.

Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers



Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz



The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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